Just returned from a 14 day tour of the Med on the Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas. Having sailed in one of the giants last year (QM2) we were keen to give the latest biggest cruise ship a try. Well lets just say that ... Read More
Just returned from a 14 day tour of the Med on the Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas. Having sailed in one of the giants last year (QM2) we were keen to give the latest biggest cruise ship a try. Well lets just say that biggest isn't best. Not to say that our latest adventure wasn't enjoyable - it was, and much of what we got was just as expected and of a good standard. But there are so many negatives concerning the Royal Caribbean operation. Cunard they are certainly not, they are not even on the same page. They are the nautical equivalent of a travel lodge with a few more amenities. Much of what was included in the price wasn't actually used by us, but much of what was available - was only in fact available at an additional cost. As a guest I found myself being part of the target group, with the well-honed sales team keen to make a killing on maximizing revenue. You can imagine all their team-building exercises, staff appraisals and target setting going on a daily basis behind the façade of the cruise, with lots of high-fives and hooting and hollering before making their sales pitch. To be greeted with the Disneyesque "enjoy your breakfast", "how are you today", and the stomach-churning classic "have a nice day", was not my idea of enhancing the dining experience. To make matters worse, it was usually offered by a singing welcome-host who I never saw do anything else on the entire cruise. God only knows what the position she applied for was. The fact is, such greetings usually limited my food intake in case of sudden nausea brought on by the in-your-face and over-the-top greetings that were rammed down your throat with all the sincerity of a McDonalds employee. Ugh ! I am familiar with lift music that is usually the preserve of major hotels and larger department stores. Sometimes it can be dismissed without possibly meaning to do so. Possibly a subconscious reaction. It is usually nondescript and completely forgettable background music that is unobtrusive unless you allow it to be, when in a moment of weakness you may even hum along or tap your feet, hopefully out of sight to other punters of course. Royal Caribbean have gone the extra mile and made all their lift music completely obtrusive, mirroring the antics of many of their staff. In your face, nauseating and completely pointless, but obviously appealing to the younger clientele who saw the lifts as some kind of evening entertainment facility. You can usually get an indication of a company by the way in which it deals with any complaints. Customer service usually begins with, "the customer is always right," even if they are not. Well, Royal Caribbean seem to tackle any points raised with an immediate defensive stance, or "please fill in all these forms in triplicate," so that any desire to voice concerns or see the person in charge is completely stone-walled with an intricate defense mechanism. My wife commented on some marks on her wine glass one evening, and the Assistant Waiter, the Waiter, and the Head Waiter all suggested that this is how they come out of the dishwasher. There was no "I'm sorry madam, I'll get you a clean one" - but an immediate defense response, and a slight suggestion that such trivial concerns shouldn't really be raised. Hands up who would put dish-washer stained glasses or cutlery on their dinner table. Exactly. So come on Royal Caribbean - don't defend the indefensible. Then again it is possible that perhaps my wife should have apologized for noticing the offending stains and made her point quietly on her way out of the dining room and out of earshot to other guests. It wasn't as though she was asking for a mass-suicide of the kitchen staff, she was merely pointing out that her glass was dirty. On a positive note, after this incident it would appear that they managed to repair the faulty dish-washer as there was no repeat performance.
A picture is emerging. But before more of the bad things lets look at some of the good ones. The entertainment team are very good - the resident band are superb - particularly the drummer. The standard of acts again was good, and the ice show outstanding. The food at breakfast and lunch was taken in the Windjammer area and was of good standard with plenty of choice - although the welcome host became annoying to say the least, and the plastic crockery was not in keeping with the attempted splendor. Even the coffee mugs were plastic, although you could venture all the way down to other end of the promenade and find a more appropriate receptacle for beverages. Sorry I was meant to be concentrating on the good, but seem to have wandered off again. The staterooms were excellent and the house staff were proficient in their housekeeping service, and were genuinely polite and amiable people - well done to all. The main dining room was a grand affair on three levels and the standard of service was generally good - with more appropriate crockery and fortunately the wine wasn't served in plastic cups. The onboard facilities were generally of a good standard with an attempt made to offer both fun and quiet areas for all guests. The central promenade was interesting and proved popular with the guests, although to me it was like wandering around an out-of-town shopping mall which isn't exactly everyone's cup-of-tea, but was something novel on-board The information was also very clear and of a good standard, from the daily publications to the gust service staff.
Unfortunately it's now back the bad. Royal Caribbean need to get one of their employees to be a guest on a cruise - they will certainly benefit from the experience, and they will undoubtedly hear the numerous whisperings from disgruntled guests around the ship, who then seem content to just put up with it. Royal Caribbean's bizarre defense mechanism will eventually do more them harm than good. Don't remind people that they are having a great time or inform them of the "superb entertainment". Let guests make up their own minds, but be ready to respond when necessary. It called customer service.
We were fawned all over during evening dinner service as to whether or not we were enjoying our meals. My attitude is that if I'm eating it I'm enjoying it - stay away. If I'm not enjoying it I'll let you know. On one evening I was asked by three separate members of staff as to whether I was enjoying my meal. Such distractions and the time taken to respond on each occasion interrupted my meal and the general table conversation. I also don't wish to be mithered as to whether I want some more wine pouring. I can perform this function quite adequately myself - and can even turn the bottle to avoid any spillage. Greet, take orders, deliver drinks, deliver food, bon appetite, and a fond farewell. But be around to deal with any issues. Not too much to ask is it. Nobody interrupted the evening entertainment to ask whether or not I was enjoying the show, and I cannot recall any of the bar staff enquiring as to my satisfaction with the drinks that I had ordered. So is the over-zealous attention in the dining room being polite, over the top, or the assumed standards that Royal Caribbean think they should set or aspire to? Well I'm of the opinion that it is the latter, although they miss the mark completely.
As regards staff availability and attention, when the queues were mounting up for disembarkation on the tenders at Villefranche, tempers seemed to be rising and the Royal Caribbean staff were conspicuous by their absence. A result of the latest training initiative perhaps. When there's going to be a problem - hide. If I nip down to my local hostelry and someone offers me a drink I am usually grateful and may even reciprocate later in the evening. On Royal Caribbean ships beware waiters bearing drink filled trays offering you cocktails. "Ooh thanks very much". Then they bring you a bill for a drink they offered you, which you probably wouldn't have ordered if you had decided to venture to the bar. You can keep your rummy-rummy in future. I got fed up with continual market-trader baying by the free-range cocktail waiters out on the deck offering their wares. It was rather akin to the lucky-lucky men that proliferate so many of the tourist hotspots around the Med nowadays The meals in the main restaurant were adequate and occasionally good, but became increasingly familiar during the cruise. The non-popular choices seemingly remained on the menu instead of just being lost in the self-service Windjammer buffet.
The biggest issue on board was with the sheer number of unsupervised kids. Perhaps the issue was therefore the parents of these little miscreants. Lets face facts, no kid actually paid anything for their cruise. Their parents paid. So once they have ditched their folks, why are they still treated as equals on board? As friendships grew some areas became similar to the street corners back home with hoards of teenagers pushing older guests out of lifts, trying to coerce other guests into buying them alcohol, and generally being a nuisance to guests who had actually paid out of their own pockets. The ship has a running track on the uppermost deck, although the kids preferred the stateroom corridors. Lifts also provided a great deal of free fun - press every floor button and the run away. Alternatively just hold the doors open on the top floor. Adult only zones were located at various parts of the ship, which were obviously meant to put off other the kids and not the ones that chose to ignore the signs. Perhaps Royal Caribbean needs to define what they mean by the term adult. Old? Over 18, 21 or 25? Being a parent, being married or in a civil partnership, or having a proper job? It seems a cop-out to me to use the term adult as there are so few on any holiday nowadays. Perhaps it means someone who is considerate to others, or even conscious of anyone outside their little tribal gathering. To me it probably means me and perhaps my wife and then hopefully the captain, one or two of the staff and ideally other like-minded guests muttering obscenities under their breath. If you can answer the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" with an answer that is in the present tense, then you probably are an adult, or as near as one can get.
As for the kids it is their parents that are ruining them with such lavish treats as a way of extolling their own prowess in modern society. Cruising is not really for kids despite what the adverts say and the extensive range of activities on board. Kids belong at Euro-Camp, Disneyworld, All-inclusive hotels or Butlins. As I said, kids haven't paid anything themselves, but they can get free soda, ice-cream and pizza all day long, and a dedicated pool area offering all the fun of an adventure park. There were some classic quotes overheard from some patronizing parents; "Don't you think you've had enough ice-creams this morning", "Try not to have just chips today", "Florence will be a great trip - you can even try some Italian ice-cream" Just a few gems that probably say more about the parents than it does about the kids. These families are seemingly not from the seedier suburbs, but appear to be from affluent backgrounds with even a smattering of education. Unfortunately the kids seem to expect their world of treats, and probably demand one better than last year or just keep up with their school friends, "cos Tarquin did a cruise last year". Their parents seem to want to use their holiday experience of taking the kids on a cruise as some collateral in their bawdy recollections back home at the Golf-Club or Gym. Funnily enough, the kids on board appear to have similar role models to those less fortunate teenagers back home - Amy Winehouse, Vicky Pollard et al. Any direct complaints to the dear little lambs were met with the usual "Am I bothered" routine. Unfortunately I wasn't met with any such retorts, so I wasn't able to suggest that "if only your opinion mattered," as a suitable put-down. Royal Caribbean security staff were invisible in the main, although they were more than active at the ports, whilst you were getting on and off the ship. You would like to think they could easily address the issue of massed ranks of unsupervised kids. Just before daybreak, you could apparently watch many parents prowling the corridors in search of their offspring who had not yet returned to their stateroom. Occasionally, bags of discarded clothes sent shockwaves through concerned mothers until the little miscreants were finally tracked down, so that they could shower, get changed and do it all over again. The only time when parents were asked to take responsibility for a child's behavior was before a show started with a announcement for parental control over the PA. This wasn't actually policed though and I can hardly sit in judgement on Royal Caribbean when it is merely more evidence of social breakdown. More alarmingly, I reckon the parents would no doubt be more defensive than Royal Caribbean on hearing any complaints, if not abusive about being questioned on their parenting ability. For the record I'm not anti-kid - I have at least 5, and have done my stint of holidays of all types with my own squad of little tykes, so for those accusing me of not knowing what parenting is about, believe me I'm suitably qualified
Well back to the cruise itself. The brochure has you conjuring up an illusion of a floating hotel with a new destination being served up as you awake on the next leg of your cruise. So you book a cruise to visit all these fascinating places that unfortunately you sometimes don't actually get to see. You usually find yourself moored up against a harbor wall with a view of a container port, with a possible glimpse of the glossy destination you so longingly wanted to visit. You may have to stand on the balcony furniture or adjourn to the upper most decks to catch a view of the cathedral dome using some high magnification binoculars. So your cruise doesn't actually take you where they tell you in the brochures - you must pay more to get into the town - ie Lisbon, Barcelona, Gib, Livorno. I have some excellent footage of the cranes in operation at Barcelona and Malaga, to the tuneful accompaniment of reversing sirens on the fork-lift-trucks or the container cranes. It is completely at the other end of the spectrum to your envisaged docking location. Why did the adjacent ship at the port of Livorno only charge 1 Euro for the shuttle bus, whereas Royal Caribbean charged 5 dollars each way? Someone made a formal complaint in triplicate which was posted in the relevant complaints box - which probably is linked directly to the effluent discharge. Admittedly, sometimes the shuttle was free - but this was a gesture of the town rather than a service laid on by Royal Caribbean. A nice gesture in order to get the tourists to part with their hard-earned Euros in the town center, but most welcome all the same.
As you leaf through the brochures you are promised excellent service, cuisine and entertainment on board ship, although occasionally I would forgo some of this for a brief go on the internet, which was at an additional cost and extortionate to say the least. Just a little free googling and emails isn't too much to ask for, rather than yet another ice extravaganza - all teeth and knickers, or rolling out some has-beens or in some cases never-was's. I would also liked to have opened a bottle of red on my balcony instead of being blasted every night by music and lights, but any booze you try and take on board gets confiscated and the bar prices can be expensive for a nice bottle of wine ($40 on board - £3 a bottle in Gib) So, somethings that you yearn for you are denied and instead you are led on a tailored holiday experience that is tailored to ramp up your bill. Comfortable air-conditioning is provided in the casino to encourage you stay and lose any winnings, although it can get uncomfortably warm on the promenade in order to entice you to quench your thirst at one of the bars. So for 14 nights, you can generally pay up to £2000 per person, sometimes more sometimes less. They then hope to get half as much again from your on board account. So cater for at least 25% of your cruise cost to cover the so called extras. Then there's the tips. Royal Caribbean even offer a pre-paid gratuity service for their staff. When I booked the cruise there was a promise of excellent standards. This standard was never exceeded on the cruise so I feel I've already purchased the service with the booking and to me a tip is for going above and beyond. This was never achieved and the service was just as described on the tin so to speak. Why don't Royal Caribbean pay their staff a decent salary rather than rely on customers to make up their apparent shortfall in staff wages. In order to maximize Royal Caribbean shareholder dividends, they pay their staff minimum wage and rely on the grand old tradition of tipping to ensure that their staff can make ends meet by expecting the customers to stump up a bit extra for the guys that expertly manage to get a cork out of a bottle, or bring a plate of food to your table containing exactly what you ordered, or the noble art of making a bed and hovering the carpet. I really don't know how I mange this same level of service myself at home. And it's a real shame I never got the opportunity to stuff a $20 bill into the Captain's top pocket, "Well steered and thanks for staying up all night driving the boat." As a reminder of Royal Caribbean's "green" stance we were continually reminded to "save the waves" and limit towel washing requirement and wasting water, and we even initially participated in this with some enthusiasm. However, after the captain discharged the effluent tanks once 16 miles off land, we became disturbed by the sheer hypocrisy and were immediately put off the prospect of "catch of the day" for our evening meal. I'm sure that any discharge conforms to all relevant international standards and the company could wheel out some marine biologist of undoubted repute in order to praise the marine conservation efforts of Royal Caribbean. But the aroma that confronted us on deck during one part of the voyage was particularly unwelcome, but not nearly as unwelcome as my wife's line of enquiry as to whether I was responsible for the offending smell. So, use as many towels as you want - it's your holiday.
All in all, a good experience - but you have been warned. If you've got this far and want to do a cruise with the kids - Royal Caribbean is probably for you, although in reality you probably haven't read this far. Royal Caribbean should remember that their cruise is not for affluent dummies eager to part with cash to purchase tawdry goods, tours and unwanted chattels. They need to understand the term "guests" and in my experience such people don't mind buying things, but definitely don't like being sold it.
If you want a top drawer cruise with less kids - try Cunard, Princess or Norwegian. Although Thomson Holidays apparently offer adult only cruises but on much smaller ships - but then again what exactly is an adult? Read Less